MELROSE — Tommy, a 16-year-old from Harlem, has spent the past four months living at the Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx after being accused of robbery.
Although his life can be stressful, he said he has found some escape through the Sprout by Design program, which has been working with the center for about three years to teach incarcerated children skills that range from harvesting peppers to hatching chickens.
"It’s out of the ordinary. It came out of the blue," he said of the program. "I would expect something like someone to tell us what’s right and wrong, things like that, but this, it keeps your mind off your case. It just keeps you in a different place."
Sprout has worked with several different clients in New York City, according to its website, but co-founder Ilona de Jongh views its efforts at places like Horizon as particularly important.
She said the experience of being incarcerated can be traumatic for juveniles and maintained that her organization had the ability to take that potentially negative experience and turn it into something positive.
"A lot of people say, 'Why would they need to know this? They live in the projects,' or something like that," she said. "And it's like, especially people that have never touched soil before, it's tremendously impactful, and here they have time to sit down."
The work can be extremely calming as well, she said.
"If you’re upset, go out and shovel some dirt, or go weed," she said, "and then an hour later, you’re good."
At Horizon, which is run by the Administration for Children's Services, the program takes place in an outdoor part of the facility filled with projects the kids have worked on, including beds of plants, chicken coops and a shed.
Bradley Pierre, director of programming at Horizon, said the teens have been most engaged by Sprout's pepper harvesting and chicken hatching programs, although the latter came to a less than ideal conclusion.
"The chickens didn’t work out," he said. "The last one was a rooster, so we had to send him away, and then the other two came to an untimely demise at the hands of Bronx rats."
The peppers that the teens have been harvesting are a source for Bronx Hot Sauce, according to ACS, and Tommy said he had really enjoyed learning more about plants through Sprout.
"I think I should know what plants do: what they consume, what they do for us," he said, "because when I take them Regents, you know, science is in there."
He described Sprout overall as akin to a more fun and engaging version of school.
"It’s more interactive," he said. "It's more doing than just writing and listening."
Sarah, a 17-year-old from Harlem who has been in Horizon for 14 months after being accused of robbery, said she looks forward to the Sprout program every week, and one of her favorite activities so far has been learning how to make Icees.
She did not expect a program like Sprout to exist when she arrived at Horizon and said the facility would be a much more boring place without it.
"Kids who live in communities like us, we don’t really get to plant things and farm things," she said. "It’s something new for us to do, and I love to do it.”
"It’s fun to me, and it’s interesting, and it’s something different," she continued. "We’re incarcerated, so you don’t think about being able to plant and create new things and stuff while you’re locked up."
Although there were security concerns with Sprout at first centered on letting the kids at Horizon handle sharp objects and tools, they have not had any incidents related to the program so far, according to Pierre.
He said the program overall is meant to help change the idea of what children in detention look like and keep them occupied with positive activities.
"These kids are like every other child in the city, adolescents, and they’re capable of learning, and they make mistakes," he said. "But this is really about saying that there’s more for these kids in terms of opening their opportunities and the windows of what they're able to see and experience."
NOTE: DNAinfo New York agreed to use pseudonyms for the names of the juveniles quoted in this article.